The search for truth, a challenge for all

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Theresa Villiers speech last Thursday (11.02.16) outlined the British State’s narrative around our past. While I accept that there are competing analyses and narratives in any conflict, I have to say that from a republican perspective sections of her speech could be seen as misleading and indeed provocative. This applies not only to her view of what happened in the past but also to her narrative around proposals put forward in the negotiations.

She denies direct RUC or British Army involvement in a number of high profile deaths, without reference to the actual presence of British agents in a number of these atrocities. She should consult with the Police Ombudsman to ascertain the facts of the matter. She ignores the direct involvement of agents in multiple deaths across the 6 counties over three decades. Agents were controlled and directed by state handlers, while allowed to organise, direct and partake in killings, while equipping Loyalist groups etc…

She then goes on to outline her government’s position around onward disclosure to families. Again she rolls out the concerns around the Article 2 (right to life) of agents and the protection of current techniques and capabilities. Yet these concerns were clearly acknowledged and dealt with in the options paper which Sinn Féin presented to both governments at the recent negotiations.

Another twist in the saga was seen the day after her speech was delivered, when NIO Minister Ben Wallace approved a public interest immunity (PII) application to withhold documents linked to the disappearance and death of a 15 year old school girl Arlene Arkinson. What ‘national security’ or ‘public interest’ concerns are raised in this instance? What exactly have the British government got to hide concerning the death of Arlene Arkinson?

Another point in her speech that will sit uncomfortably with many in the Nationalist/Republican tradition is her mantra of a few rotten apples within the RUC and British forces. This doesn’t sit comfortably with facts already in the public domain. It is now obvious that political decisions were taken at the highest level to facilitate, or at least turn a blind eye to, executions of republican and loyalist operatives, the murder of innocent civilians by British forces, the facilitation of the murder of human rights solicitors, and the use of “inhumane and degrading treatment” of detainees in interrogation centres throughout the 1970’s.

What is required now is a serious attempt by all key stakeholders to address the barriers to reaching a comprehensive agreement in how we deal with our past. We must acknowledge that a lot of good work has already been done around developing viable mechanisms to facilitate a range of options requested by families i.e. independent investigations, information recovery and storytelling / creation of historical archives. The main barriers have clearly been identified; onward disclosure, adequate resourcing of all the legacy mechanisms, concerns around the nature and level of information recovery and the active participation of ALL key stakeholders within the mechanisms.

That work doesn’t have to wait until after the Assembly elections. It can be done quietly by all key stakeholders, away from the glare of publicity, exploring all options, while developing consensus around the main concerns. Republicans are up for it, and from talking to other stakeholders I know that many share this desire for a process of meaningful discourse as the only way to reach the elusive agreement.

Such an agreement and its out workings will challenge ALL stakeholders. The truth will make uncomfortable reading for all protagonists to the conflict, state and non-state forces alike. But the daily revelations and our failure to deal with our past is casting a dark shadow over our present and our future along with the selective drip feeding of information. All this is fermenting a well of discontent which is now intergenerational, creating a poison in our political process. The challenge remains.

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  1. The Villiers speech was clearly a response to efforts to narrow the past debate to the question of national security/disclosure. It is a hugely important question – but so too republican and loyalist participation in the information process. What can be expected? Providing clear answers to these questions must also be part of any pre-election quiet dialogue. And perhaps within that dialogue the debate should take place on what the Chief Constable called “drawing a line”. He is not suggesting a do-nothing approach, but how much more open would an information/acknowledgement process be if such a line was drawn? This is for others to determine. It is not a policing decision. Colin Davidson’s exhibition Silent Testimony was one way of showing how the pain, so often described as being in the past, continues. To borrow his words, it’s right now. Perhaps too that powerful exhibition could give a focus to any quiet dialogue. The silence of his work speaks loudly of what can be done – what should be done. Remember also the Heaney quote, if you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way. Addressing the past needs new words, new energy and a new effort from all. It needs a quiet place and it also needs international help.

  2. Brian, there has to be other forms of engagement – absolutely – and your suggestion of ‘quiet dialogue’ is certainly an option. The process of dialogue however should never be curtailed or limited as Villiers seemed to do in her speech. The question of truth is a very difficult one here I believe for the British because I think we will still have arguments about ‘whose truth’ and ‘the whole truth’ – what is disclosed, how is that done etc. We will have to determine the level of truth and the acceptance of that necessary for reconciliation here. The relationship between truth(s) and reconciliation on this island is not easy. Full participation, as you also mention, is key to this process. We must not just be patient but also wholeheartedly willing to believe in all stories – a belief that we can share, accept, acknowledge and move on. Addressing the past, as you also refer to, requires new words – this language of accommodation and responsiveness is also certainly needed. It should be vocabulary that gives individuals, groups, families, and victims the possibility of closing one chapter and starting a new one – it is a chance that shouldn’t be missed or squandered.

  3. If there’s the will, then there will be a way. Knowing what is achievable through any information process would be a good starting point – also understanding how investigation sits or doesn’t sit alongside information retrieval. An archive for all stories, experiences, truths will also have an important part in any process.

  4. Sean,
    Thank you for this, I’ve enjoyed reading it and it is a clear contribution which provokes thought. Amongst the many thoughts and emotions it has provoked in me is the thought that when you describe SofS Villiers comments as “misleading and indeed provocative” you are falling far short of the huge insult to victims that her comments really are. The emotion she raised in me is anger. To be more accurate I’m livid at the use of the word “perfidious” in describing any narrative on the past which differs from that of Westminster.

    treacherous, duplicitous, deceitful, disloyal, faithless, unfaithful, traitorous, treasonous, false, untrue, double-dealing, dishonest, untrustworthy.

    Before reading further I urge you to reread the definition of Perfidious two or three times and let it sink in because in her recent use of this word this is what British Secretary of State (SofS) Villiers was calling everyone who has any narrative which differs in any way from the Westminster Governments’ narrative on our recent conflict. She would have been pushed to find a stronger or more offensive word. There are many narratives, ALL of which need to be addressed and validated through a multi-track truth recovery process. It is my opinion that the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) made a good attempt at laying down these tracks.

    January marked the 42nd anniversary of when the UVF, under the ultimate command of the state and their spooks and with logistical support from their forces on the ground, took the life of my father, John Crawford on 9th January 1974. My Aunt Martha had been killed in crossfire just 2/3 months earlier and my cousin Patrick (Martha’s son) was to be shot dead 2 years later during August 1976. In many ways all of these events happened a lifetime ago. In the lives of those left behind for over 40 years is the blink of an eye. This is my narrative. This is my belief (arrived at through evidence). It is true.

    At face value it could be easily assumed that SofS Villiers comments were directed at Republicans but this is not the case. Her comments, like the introduction of a National Security clause into Legacy processes, are an attack on everyone’s truth/narrative (and truth recovery) with the exception of her own. As such her insult is directed at victims, particularly victims of state violence, as well as a warning to her own forces (including their loyalist surrogates) that should they tell their own truth they will be condemned as liars and disowned. It is a statement of panic and it is a threat. It is also just the latest in a long line of attacks on victims perpetrated by SofS Villiers on behalf of her government, and by others on their ‘side of the fence’ for want of a better way of putting it. This attack will ultimately fail (IMO) just as the previous attempts have failed.

    Among the attempts to stifle any truth other than the official government line has been the scuttling of the Maze/Long Kesh development. This development would have been sited on the most continuously relevant, pivotal and well known site of our recent conflict. I personally don’t see that it would have been a ‘shrine’ and, having visited the Berlin Wall site I think it could have been a focus for peace, education and respectful remembrance for generations to come.

    The SPAD Bill – designed to further punish and discriminate against those who have served their time while ignoring those who remain unknown. This despite the fact that many more participated than whet to gaol and also despite the virtually universal acknowledgement of the positive contribution Known ex-combatants (politically motivate prisoners) have made to building the peace.

    The manipulation of figures in claiming ‘security forces’ were “only” involved in 10% of conflict related deaths. When adjusted to allocate 100’s of collusion related deaths to their rightful owners (Westminster) the 10% ratio morphs into a much high percentage.

    At a recent event held at Queens University Belfast (Unfinished Peace) I gave a brief outline of SOME of the circumstances around my father’s killing. Chief Constable George Hamilton, in reply, told me my language was unhelpful before going into an outline of his position regarding the RUC in West Belfast. Both George and SofS Villiers in their utterances used the phrase that they would not “defend the indefensible”. If this is the case they should immediately stop doing just that by facilitating rather than hampering truth recovery by the use of Public Interest Immunity orders or the imposing of National security clauses.

    ALL who lost loved ones suffer the same loss to a large degree. Speaking the truth is the opposite of being perfidious and EVERYONE’S truth should be respected.

    Finally I would say this:-
    Family placed a kneeling stone on my father’s grave which reads “Too good in life to be forgotten in death”. He (and all victims) will be remembered long after SofS Villiers is forgotten.

    Again, thanks Sean for provoking this response. Perhaps a good next step would be for ALL ex-combatant groupings to outline the level of truth they envisage being recoverable, and in preparation for such might engage directly and quietly with representative victims.

  5. Paul,

    Thanks for your comments. No words of mine could adequately describe your sense of loss, or the level of frustration and anger engendered by the comments of Theresa Villiers for yourself.

    Her frustration at the Nationalist/Republican narrative and its articulation across the globe has clearly triggered her latest contribution to the legacy debate, a debate which must be inclusive of all narratives irrespective of ones perception of them.

    Apart from my critique of her narrative, I also sought to induce a discourse/debate amongst all perspectives with regard to identifying and eventually resolving all key issues which currently prevents a comprehensive agreement emerging, which would facilitate the establishment and delivery of the key legacy mechanisms.

    The Irish/British governments don’t appear to want to initiate a process of debate/discussion now in advance of the Assembly elections. This unacceptable situation is compounded by the emergence of a fractious EU referendum, which may well have consequences for the future stability of the current Tory leadership.

    This may put back any serious attempt at initiating a serious discourse around legacy well into the Autumn. This is unacceptable. If the 2 governments cant/wont initiate such a process then it is up to other key stakeholders to take the initiative.

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